Mary Jane Fonder, 66, the oldest woman to be convicted of first-degree murder in Bucks County, was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for fatally shooting a fellow congregant in the office of a Springfield Township church.

Defiant to the end, Fonder again denied committing the Jan. 23 murder of Rhonda Smith, 42, inside Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

"I'm sorry, so very sorry this poor woman was murdered," Fonder told Bucks County Court Judge Rea B. Boylan. "But in the name of God . . . I did not kill Rhonda Smith."

A jury found otherwise on Oct. 30.

Smith had been working alone as a temporary receptionist when she was shot twice in the head. Prosecutors said Fonder killed Smith out of jealousy over the emotional and financial help given Smith by other church members and their pastor.

That, too, Fonder denied.

"I certainly was not jealous of her," Fonder told the judge yesterday. "I'm not the type of person to go flying off the handle and do such a thing."

A police investigation continues into the 1993 disappearance of Fonder's elderly father. Edward Fonder III was 83 when he went missing from the Kintnersville home he shared with his daughter, never to be found.

First Assistant District Attorney David Zellis declined to discuss details of where that probe stood. Calling Fonder "a sociopath," he said he was not surprised by her ongoing denials in court.

"Fortunately for our community, she is off into the abyss of the state penal system, never to be heard from again," Zellis said.

For Fonder, the sentencing was a formality. Prosecutors had not sought the death penalty, so life without parole was the only possible punishment.

But for Smith's loved ones, the hearing was a tribute to her, their chance to explain their loss. Her parents, Francis and Dorothy Smith of Hellertown, chose to read the judge letters their daughter had written about them and had given to them.

"I am very fortunate because she shows me the truth when all I see is black," Dorothy Smith read. "My mother is the best gift of all."

For much of her life, Rhonda Smith struggled with bipolar disorder. Her letter to her father, in part, thanked him for encouraging her.

"You taught me, even with my mental illness I can do anything anybody else can do," Francis Smith read. "You always dealt with me logically and now that I am living in reality, I know how priceless that is. . . . Sometimes I think [giving up] would be easier, but I still fight because I know I'm on a good team."

Boylan said it was the first time a family had ever read letters from a victim at one of her sentencings.

"I think that was the most eloquent and difficult thing you could have done," she told the Smiths. "You shared with us a little bit of what the loss has been - not only to you, but to all of us."

After the hearing, Smith's niece, Amber Smith, called it "hurtful" that Fonder refused to admit her guilt.

"I feel sorry because she put herself in a position like this," Smith said. "I'm also angry, because she took a person who meant so much to me."

Several church members and their pastor, the Rev. Gregory Shreaves, attended the sentencing.

Afterward, Shreaves called the Smiths "incredible models of grace." Fonder, he said, remains a member of their congregation despite being imprisoned for life.

"We know that God's grace can be present," Shreaves said, "even in the midst of that horrible situation."